Council caught off guard as Briggs packs it in

Some ascribe her frustration to process, others to personality

as City Hall boss quits.

Much can be gleaned over lunch.

Along with conversation come unuttered signals. Untouched potato salad, a vigorously crumpled napkin or fork-fidgeting may signify troubles at work, like those aired by City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs during regular lunchtime chats with Councilman Jim Llewellyn.

“At almost every lunch she expressed frustration over not being able to connect with City Council members,” Llewellyn said.

Still, at their most recent lunch, Llewellyn said Briggs offered “no hint” of her coming resignation, which the city announced last week.

Judging by the reactions of some of Briggs’ colleagues, the surprising news didn’t sit well at City Hall.

Most, including Llewellyn and fellow council member Kjell Stoknes, expressed disappointment over Briggs’ impending departure before lamenting the chronic contentiousness on the council dais.

“I think it’s hopeless,” Stoknes said. “With the current group of personalities on this council there is no solution.”

Stoknes was not alone in his assessment. Other councilors expressed discouragement over the current relations among city leaders. Though most cited considerable faults within the council, all, including Briggs, agreed blame to some extent resides in all sectors of leadership.

City Councilor Debbie Vancil said Briggs is in the difficult position of having to “please two masters.”

“The city administrator’s professional advice has often been second guessed and, as a result, too often city council directive has not been carried out,” she said via email. “Things don’t get done and information isn’t forthcoming. This has caused frustration and a lack of trust between the council and mayor.”

Briggs, who will stay with the city through Jan. 31, 2008, declined in two interviews this week to give specifics about her decision, saying it was a combination of things rather than a single person or event that prompted her to step down.

She did, however, reference three specific weaknesses that she sees in the city.

First, she said, the lines of authority in the city government have been confused; disagreement exists over who should lead whom and when.

That point was echoed by several council members and the recent benchmarking study – conducted by outside consultants to improve efficiency at the city – which marked as its first recommendation a need for the city to “agree on governance roles/responsibilities.”

As a second problem, Briggs cited a lack of priority-setting and -keeping; common goals, she said, like those outlined in the benchmarking study, often are lost amid individual conflict. Third, she said, decision-making is inconsistent and sometimes not final.

Briggs expressed hope that the city would ultimately overcome those struggles, but said that in combination they drove her to resign.

“To be successful as an organization there has to be a shared commitment among the key stakeholders,” she said. “I don’t believe that’s there.”

Councilman Bill Knobloch said he was disappointed to hear of Briggs’ resignation. Like Stoknes, he thinks that little will change until next year, when at least three new members will join the council. He also pointed to the first recommendation of the benchmarking study, saying that boundaries between the different branches of government too often are breached.

“I’m very uncomfortable with the way certain members of council have micromanaged staff,” he said. “That’s not our job.”

He also lamented that what he described as personal enmity between some council members and the mayor has in many cases overshadowed the work entrusted to the council.

“The bottom line is we’re supposed to be working for the best interests of the community,” he said. “Personality should have nothing to do with it. You should leave that at the door – this is basic stuff.”

The benchmarking study was referenced frequently by councilors in discussing the problems facing the city. Conducted by consultants CH2M Hill, the $130,000 study measures the City of Bainbridge Island’s level of service, cost and staffing levels against those of comparable municipalities.

But despite the study’s completion earlier this year, little work has been done to implement its five “critical” recommendations.

“The most expensive study ever conducted by the city may end up being a waste of time if we can’t convince council and the city administration to work together,” Llewellyn said.

Some council members cited as a possible contributor to Briggs’ resignation contention over a budget ordinance vetoed by Mayor Darlene Kordonowy last week.

The ordinance, which the council passed by a 4-3 margin, would have capped city operating expenses, including staff salaries and benefits. Kordonowy exercised her veto power a week later, saying she feared the ordinance would too greatly limit flexibility early in the budget process.

The protracted debate over the ordinance was important, councilors said, and perhaps troubling to Briggs, because many city staff already perceive a shortage of resources.

“I think from Mary Jo’s perspective, staff was asked to do too little with not enough,” Llewellyn said.

Council Chair Chris Snow agreed, saying that he sensed that some city staff feel disrespected by council and discouraged over continued indecision.

“There is a broad representation of views on the council,” he said. “It’s always possible to find one member willing to revisit an issue. I can’t think of anything worse for staff than to see people at the top who are unable to make a decision that sticks.”

Snow said he didn’t see things changing before the new council members arrive next year, “unless we intentionally decide to make it different – that has to happen.”

Until it does, it will make little difference who succeeds Briggs, Stoknes said.

“It would be a disservice to hire a new city administrator before we fix our internal issues,” he said. “We need to learn to work well together and respect one another before we bring someone new on and start beating up on them. Doing that would be unkind.”

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